Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary

21 Mar 2012

Dean Burgon and the Revised Version

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The King James-only movement believes that only the KJV is the Word of God. All other English versions are corrupt since no modern Bible version (except the New King James Version) is translated from the Textus Receptus (TR) Greek NT, which is considered to be without error. By the 1800s scholars had begun to produce Greek New Testaments that were based upon newly discovered manuscripts which had been copied much earlier than than those on which the TR was based. In the 19th century the TR was still being reprinted without significant change since it was first created by Erasmus in 1516. While the TR was produced from a few late medieval manuscripts, critical texts of the NT are eclectic in nature in that they are compiled by examining all available manuscripts in order to identify the text as originally written.

In 1831 Karl Lachmann produced such an eclectic text, and a second edition from 1842–1850. Between 1857–79 Samuel Tregelles also authored a critical Greek NT. Finally, between 1841 and 1872 Constantin von Tischendorf edited eight Greek New Testaments. But none of these efforts produced a serious opposition movement. It was only when the critical text of Westcott and Hort was embodied in an actual English translation, in this case the the Revised Version (RV), did a major uproar ensue. This is why the origin of the  KJV-only movement is properly traced from the publication of the RV in 1881 and more specifically to the immediate opposition by Dean Burgon, especially his 1883 volume, The Revision Revised. This is the point I was making in my previous posts (here and here).


As I mentioned in my last post, Burgon denied perfection for the TR in The Revision Revised, but he only admitted this in a footnote (p. 21, fn. 2) in a work of over 500 pages. Burgon never attempts to actually correct the TR, but spends the entire book defending it against every change adopted in the Revised Version. He suggests that any revision of the TR is only somewhat of a theoretical possibility (p. xxix). And like modern-day KJV-only advocates, he seems to suggest that any revision of the KJV itself is practically impossible: “I speedily made the further discovery that the Revised English would have been in itself intolerable, even had the Greek been let alone” (p. xii).  “It may be confidently assumed that no ‘Revision’ of our Authorized Version, however judiciously executed, will ever occupy the place in public esteem which is actually enjoyed by the work of the Translators of 1611,—the noblest literary work in the Anglo-Saxon language. We shall in fact never have another ‘Authorized Version'” (p. 113). So although it may be unfair to classify Burgon as a KJV-only advocate in a strict, technical sense; as a practical matter, the distance between him and its modern-day practitioners is razor thin. This is confirmed by the fact that KJV-only proponents universally appeal to the work of Burgon and count him as one of their own—their champion.

What is interesting to contemplate is that there may have been a KJV-only movement even if the RV had been translated from the TR. Moving from the TR to the critical text was certain to be an issue, but by this time the actual English words of the KJV had taken on the status of an infallible sacred text, not to be disturbed. As Burgon said, “I speedily made the further discovery that the Revised English would have been in itself intolerable, even had the Greek been let alone.” The middle section of Burgon’s The Revision Revised (120 pp.) is devoted to laying out the English translation errors of the RV apart from any consideration of the Greek text. Burgon was totally opposed to any attempt to revise the KJV, except possibly by way of some marginal notes, and he forcefully argues that nothing should be allowed “to supersede our present English Bible” (Revision Revised, p. 114). It is primarily the appearance of new English translations of the Bible, translations that challenge the official status of the KJV, which has become the impetus for the KJV-only movement. This was true for Burgon, and just as true for modern-day KJV-only proponents. It is clearly seen in their rejection of the New King James Version, which, although translated from the TR just like the KJV, is, nevertheless, universally rejected because is it not exactly the same wording as the perfect, infallible KJV.

In a future post we will see how the KJV-only movement moved to America.